Hail your e-mail

Will the Yahoo taxis, with their free Net access, become the vehicles of the future?

Published November 3, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

A month ago, Yahoo signed a deal with a San Francisco taxi company to put computers and wireless modems in cabs. Until today, I thought that Net access in cabs was the last thing I needed. But this morning I called a cab and happened to get one of the new Yahoo taxis -- and I couldn't get the Internet access to work.

There are only 10 Internet-ready taxicabs cruising the San Francisco streets, but it seems like there are more because you can see them from halfway across town. They are painted a bright purple with "Yahoo" written across the side in 2-foot yellow letters.

Inside, the front of the cab was a mass of wiring. There was a cable plugged into the cigarette lighter, a multi-outlet cord plugged into the cable, a computer plugged into the cord and a Ricochet wireless modem plugged into a computer. The arrangement does not look sleek, but it does look promising. With so many cables, you rather expect the thing to work.

"Does this have Net access?" I asked the driver.

It did, he said, but he wasn't sure if it worked. I picked up the computer anyway. If you happen to be a computer junkie, as I am, you'll want to know that it's a tiny NEC Mobile Pro unit running Windows CE -- something of a rarity in itself. I pressed a couple of buttons. They made amplified clicks as the screen lit up. The computer warned me that it was low on batteries.

I told the driver that the computer seemed to work. He looked happy to hear this. Keeping one hand on the wheel, he picked up the modem in the other, and tried to adjust the antenna. He seemed to get it right on the third try.

Meanwhile, I was trying to connect to the Net. The little Internet Explorer globe did its spinning thing in the upper right hand corner of the screen. Nothing happened.

"It seems to work in the other nine cabs," the driver said. He played with a switch on the modem. A light went on. A light went off. The modem bleeped out a note. As the cab bounced along the street, I tried to highlight a Web address using the touch-activated screen. I clicked the enter key again. The globe spun again. Still nothing. By now I was tapping my fingers impatiently, determined to shoot out a pair of e-mails before I got out.

"I just got a computer myself," the driver complained, "Two weeks ago. I don't really know how to use it. But my son, he uses it to record music. We got a CD burner, too."

OK, by this point I was a man on a mission. I found myself wondering if the driver might not be trying to distract me from my goal of logging on to the Internet. I was late to work and I wanted to check my e-mail. Moreover, the Net use is free in the Yahoo taxis, which struck me as an utterly amazing deal. I'd expected it to cost three bucks a minute, like the cellular phones on airplanes.

The driver fiddled with some dials and turned the modem over like a new breed of sea creature before putting it down on the seat, where it stayed -- an innocent piece of consumer electronics left to lie defenseless on its back.

"It's embarrassing," the driver apologized.

I told him not to worry, but I spent the rest of the cab ride stewing. I am even not sure that if the modem had worked I would have been more excited. It might sound strange, but I find the more time I spend trying to get computers to work, the more urgently I feel I need them.

By Mark Gimein

Mark Gimein is a staff writer for Salon Technology.

MORE FROM Mark Gimein

Related Topics ------------------------------------------